The 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves left a lot to be desired. Starting out as a team that looked promised and poised to sneak into the playoffs, they ended up as a squad most known for their unraveling in the second half, an almost non-existent interior defense, and a practically non-existent bench.
However, there were bright spots to last year’s team. Andrew Wiggins had a respectable year, which included a great stretch of games in November and a 47 point career high against the Lakers. Ricky Rubio battled through an elbow injury and trade rumors to have, arguably, his best season so far and became a triple-double machine down the stretch. And KAT was an insurmountable force on offense and the boards, putting him, comfortably, in “all-star snub” territory.
Also, Thibs didn’t choke anyone, which exceeded my expectations.
But as we turn to this year, there’s a laundry list of questions this team has to address coming out the gate. It’s a whole new look for the Timberwolves, and not just the new jerseys and logo.
For starters, after years of speculation and rumors, Ricky Rubio was dealt to the Utah Jazz. I cried, and I cried some more. And I’m probably not done crying about it. But the Wolves swiftly stepped in and hawked Jeff Teague during free agency. A true point guard that can pass and rebound, has the size and skill to be a good defender, and scores at a much healthier clip than Rubio did. So, although, the beautiful Spanish man will be missed, it’s impossible to argue that this is an upgrade.
The addition of Taj Gibson is pretty much prayers answered for this team. His skill set and veteran leadership alone would’ve helped this team immensely last year. The Wolves are in dire need of a guy that can stretch the floor offense and close lanes on defense plus grabbing rebounds. If you’re a Wolves fan and you aren’t sold on him already, just watch. Although Gibson, now 32, isn’t the Taj Gibson that stepped up huge once Derrick Rose was out, he’s still one of the more underrated guys at his position, and having him in the starting role would move Dieng to the bench, leaving him less susceptible to foul trouble.
Of course, I won’t forget Jimmy Butler. Besides the connection with Thibs, Butler brings something to the Wolves that we haven’t seen since Kevin Garnett; a true two-way all-star caliber player. He’s going to come in, fill it up in the midrange and get back on defense against the Kawhi’s, KD’s, LeBron’s, and Paul George’s of the league. As a veteran, and someone who spent an, although tumultuous year with Dwyane Wade, no doubt that he’s going to bring the leadership to the court that this team needs.
The Timberwolves had a few underrated signings that will hopefully beef up their bench as well. Namely Jamal Crawford and Aaron Brooks. Crawford is someone that can come in and scorch it from three if he’s hot and help the second unit stay in the game. He’s also known to be quite a pesky defender due to his length and height.
Brooks is a similar story on offense, as well as a pickup from Thibs’ days with the Bulls. It’s not certain how much time he’ll see in the rotation unless there’s an injury to Tyus Jones or Jeff Teague, but if he’s needed, he can play his role quite well.
All these new additions, as well as the players returning from last year, lead us back to the questions that enveloped in the Timberwolves.
The biggest question I have is how long will it take for this group of guys to mesh. The Western conference is arguably stronger now than it has ever been. If you aren’t the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, or Thunder, there’s a very thin margin of time that you have to figure out how the hell your team is going to function, or even what your identity is.
Will this still be a pick and roll heavy offense favoring KAT? Are we going to see Wiggins take that next leap into Kobe/TMac territory? Will Jimmy Butler’s midrange game be enough to carry this team on offense?
On paper, you have a monstrous force with KAT who can score at just about any spot on the floor at this point, and a point guard who has made a career off of running P&R with Horford and Milsap in Atlanta, and last year in Indiana with Al Jefferson. That’s a game plan that can work the majority of the time, hypothetically. But we have yet to know until we see it executed. If Towns is the Tim Duncan of this era, can Teague be his Tony Parker?
Now despite reports of improved range (for like the third year in a row), Wiggins takes up the same space that Butler does, offensively. They both love to work in the midrange and are reluctant to step out. It’s going to be very interesting to see where the touches end up going and how they’re split between these two wings. If Wiggins truly has improved his consistency from outside, then there should be a problem. But if neither one can stretch the floor, this offense is going to see a lot of clogging, much like last year.
The Wolves also have a mini-Warriors dilemma on their hands. You’ve got 3 guys in KAT, Butler, and Wiggins that can lead your offense and be that “go-to” guy. But only one ball. And I don’t mean this in a “whose team is it?” way. KAT is on his way to being the best player in the league; he has to get those offensive touches. For Butler, I’m sure winning will cure all, but there’s no doubt he’s looking to get the touches he needs to secure his all-star status. And Andrew Wiggins still wants to prove that he can live up to all those lofty expectations, not to mention his rumored extension.
Figuring out how this offense is going to work is priority number one for the Timberwolves, and it can’t wait until December or January to get fleshed out in this hungry and strong Western conference.
Despite the addition of Crawford and the reassigning of Dieng to the second unit, it’s tough to say for sure if this bench is consistent or skilled enough, at least offensively, to hang with other bench units around the league.
I can see Deing being a force down there, especially on the boards, but we still aren’t sure if the stifled minutes are going to be enough to keep him on the court. Crawford is the poster boy for frustrating NBA players. Sometimes he’s hot and can give defenses trouble, other times he can make you want to pull your hair out from the errant shots he takes.
Shabazz Muhammad is still a conundrum of inconsistency and poor shot selection that deserves an article in itself. If he can buy into the system and be consistent when his number is called on, then he will be a problem. But based on what we’ve seen of him in the past, and what I’ve outlined on Crawford, this could shape up to be a frustrating bench unit.
Call me crazy, but I’m optimistic on Tyus Jones as the backup point guard. These last two years have been uninspiring and at times, deplorable, but I’m willing to make an allowance for him considering last year was weird being crammed between Rubio and Dunn on the depth chart. I think the moves this offseason will free him up on the floor and give him more options.
This season is an extremely pivotal year for the Timberwolves. The feeling around this team is very familiar to the 2009-2010 Thunder or the 13-14 Warriors. Granted those teams came up when the league was in a much different landscape. But there’s a sensation that something special is about to happen in Minnesota. But unlike last year, when a lot of people were willing to throw them in the playoff race, myself included, there’s a lot of mystery and suspicion that still surrounds the Timberwolves.